Today Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel announced that all schools of the Archdiocese of New Orleans will begin the 1962-63 academic year fully integrated. The decision, coming two years after a bitter and violent struggle against integration of the city’s public schools, is expected to uncover much ugly racism before it becomes a reality for the 75,000 students enrolled in the Catholic schools of the archdiocese.Rummel, 85, archbishop of New Orleans since 1935, has long been an advocate of racial equality. He has been frustrated by conservatives in plans to end segregation in Catholic schools, which he had hoped to achieve more than seven years ago and is likely chagrined that Catholic schools have remained segregated while public schools are integrated. As early as 1948 he admitted black students to the archdiocesan seminary, Notre Dame, and in 1951 he ordered that the “white” and “colored” signs that are the despised signature elements of segregation be removed from all parish facilities. He faced angry opposition from Catholics who claimed that integration was a sin against the division of the races they say is ordered by God.
In 1953, a year before the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that found segregated education unconstitutional, Rummel wrote a pastoral letter, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” that forbad segregation in the churches of the archdiocese, insisting that “there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.”
Rummel wrote in the same letter: “We are still convinced that enforced racial discrimination inflicts incalculable mental and emotional cruelty and pain, physical and social privations, educational and economic restrictions upon 16 millions of our fellow citizens, and that these discriminations are unjustifiable violations of the Christian way of life and the principles of our American heritage.”
Still, segregation continued in many parishes. In one shameful 1959 incident, two black youths were severely beaten by white parishioners of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Marrero when the youths sat in front pews for Sunday Mass.
Despite the archbishop’s gradual approach, conservative Catholics have organized against him, accusing him of trying to advance the spread of Communism. The state legislature attempted to force parochial schools to maintain segregation. Other conservatives formed a group called the Association of Catholic Laymen of New Orleans, which opposed the archbishop at every step and even appealed to Rome to validate their racist beliefs. They were undeterred when the Vatican replied by saying racism was immoral.An incident in 1955 at a town called Jesuit Bend, some 20 miles from New Orleans, illustrates the lengths to which conservative Catholics are prepared to go to defy the archbishop. A priest of the Society of the Divine Word, Fr. Gerald Lewis, S.V.D., who is black, was barred by parishioners of St. Cecilia’s Chapel from entering the chapel to celebrate Mass. Rummel promptly placed the parish under interdict, forbidding the celebration of the sacraments there until the parishioners repented, saying “every human being, regardless of race, color or nationality, is created after the image and likeness of God.” The parishioners remained unbowed, ignoring further pleas by the archbishop “to open their minds to truth and to let justice and charity take the place of hatred and prejudice in their hearts.” The chapel remained closed until 1958, when the unrepentant parishioners finally negotiated a back-room understanding with the Society of the Divine Word that no black priest would be sent to minister to them. The May 15, 1958, issue of Jet Magazine expressed concern with this headline: “Did Catholic Bishop Give in to La. Bigots? Negroes Still Segregated in Chapel, Despite Prelate’s Vows.”
One of the allies of the Jesuit Bend parishioners was the Plaquemines Parish district attorney, Leander Perez. Today Perez is a judge and a leading segregationist who is sure to flex his considerable political muscle to intimidate the archbishop.